Every week, students at KIPP Infinity Middle School, in West Harlem, file into a large auditorium and take their places on the designated floor markings, making sure to stand six feet apart. Then they pull down their masks and fill sterile tubes with their spit.
The school’s teachers try to make the experience fun, running competitions to see who can fill their tube fastest and holding dance contests while students wait for their classmates to finish.
“It’s kind of enjoyable,” said Bradley Ramirez, a seventh grader at the school who likes math and Minecraft. “It’s way better than just sticking a stick up your nose.”
Bradley and his classmates are participants in a coronavirus testing pilot program created by the Mount Sinai Health System, the nonprofit Pershing Square Foundation and KIPP NYC, a network of 15 local charter schools. Since early March, the program has conducted more than 13,000 saliva-based tests of KIPP students, teachers and staff members, identifying several dozen cases of the virus.
planned to fully reopen schools, eliminating remote learning, in the fall.
“The way you keep a school safe, the way you make teachers feel comfortable with the reopening of schools, the way you make parents feel comfortable sending their kid, is you have a testing program,” said William A. Ackman, a hedge fund manager who founded the Pershing Square Foundation.
The testing program originated in December, when Mr. Ackman decided that he wanted to find a way to get New York City children back to school and approached Mount Sinai with a proposal: What if he provided funding for the hospital to build a laboratory that could process 100,000 coronavirus tests a day? The hope was that the lab could devote some of that capacity to corporate clients, such as businesses that wanted to test their employees, and use the revenue to fund wide-scale testing for New York City schoolchildren.
Mount Sinai quickly agreed. “We began on a concerted effort that people at Mount Sinai have really rallied around,” said Dr. David Reich, president and chief operating officer of Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s just one of those projects where you never have to worry about people wanting to show up for your Zoom meeting — they’re all there, and they’re all smiling.”
saliva-based coronavirus tests. The gold standard diagnostic tests are known as P.C.R. tests, which can detect even minute amounts of the virus in biological specimens. During the early months of the pandemic, these tests generally required medical professionals to stick a swab deep into a patient’s nasopharynx, a procedure that can be deeply uncomfortable and put clinicians at risk.
Saliva-based P.C.R. tests, many scientists came to believe, would be safer and less invasive. They would also be much more suitable for young children than the deep, nasopharyngeal swabs. “A brain scoop, for a kid? Really? That’s a no-no,” said Dr. Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, a pathologist at Mount Sinai who led development of the new saliva test.
As the partnership between Mount Sinai and Pershing Square began to take shape, Dr. Paniz-Mondolfi and his colleagues accelerated their work, validating their saliva test in 60 adult patients. But they knew that in the real world, children could not always be relied upon to follow clinical procedures to the letter.
“When we start getting this from the schools, we’re going to have pieces of pretzels, old gum floating in the saliva,” Dr. Paniz-Mondolfi said.
So Dr. Paniz-Mondolfi and his colleagues asked their own children to make a sacrifice for science: to snack on an array of junk food, including pizza and Oreos, and then spit into some testing tubes. Using these samples, the researchers confirmed that even if a student’s sample was contaminated with one of these foods, the tests should still work properly.